26.02.2014 - 04.03.2014
"Her name was Lola, she was a showgirl, with yellow feathers in her hair..." oh yeah, we're in Rio baby, and it's carnival time!!
So we arrived in Rio and checked into our fab hostel (the lovely Discovery hostel - one of our best yet). The sun was shining and the everyone seemed to be in the party mood and heading to the beach. We too were heading to Copacabana, but rather than to the beach, we were (for the second time this trip) off to the hospital since by now I was in a great deal of pain and feeling pretty unwell - not quite how we would have chosen to spend our first day in Rio but needs must! Anyway, it turned out I have shingles (for those who don't know this is essentially an infection in your nerves caused by the same virus as chicken pox and it manifests itself in adults who have had chicken pox as kids) and I was prescribed some (expensive!) anti-viral meds, painkillers and rest. It seemed I was destined to spend our time in Rio dosed up to the hilt and sleeping - again not quite what we had in mind when we booked to go to Rio for carnival!
Luckily the carnival celebrations didn't start until the next day, by which time I'd decided that, despite feeling pretty awful, I'd have to 'man-up' and try to put the pain out of my mind if I was to avoid it entirely ruining our Rio experience. Since today was the first day of carnival, our hostel was having a mini kick off party before all heading to a 'bloco' together so we joined in. 'Bloco's' are essentially huge street parties, which centre around a truck upon which a band will usually be playing music of some sort (usually samba but there was a Beatles bloco and a Michael Jackson bloco while we were there) and which supposedly moves through the streets for people to follow (although in our experience there were generally too many people for the bloco to move anywhere!). Our first bloco was in Santa Teresa, a bohemian area of Rio close to our hostel and, in preparation, everyone from the hostel donned their brightest outfits or best fancy dress and painted their faces/arms/torso/basically any part of their body that was visible and we were off!
We had been warned that Rio carnival is "crazy" but I don't think anything prepared us for when we hit Santa Teresa. The streets were absolutely rammed full of people, so much so that it was impossible to get through and actually find the bloco truck! Londoners - picture the central line at 8am on a Monday morning, but 50 times bigger and busier, with everyone drinking beer and half the people in fancy dress and you may get some sort of idea! Despite the lack of music, everyone was still having a great time and the atmosphere was pretty awesome.
The next couple days passed in a bit of a blur of blocos as we soon discovered that you didn't have to go far to find one (apparently over carnival week there were 147 across the city!) and that the entire city seemed to have turned into one big fancy dress party. It really is quite funny travelling on the metro in the middle of the day and it being completely the norm to be surrounded by 'Supermen', 'Wonder Women', fire chiefs, pirates and belly dancers (along with a lot of men dressed as women)!
Something we hadn't appreciated when we had planned to spend 6 days in Rio over the carnival period was that these carnival events would be taking place all through the day, as well as in the evening (they often started at 10am!), which makes it hard to do all the carnival stuff as well as doing the tourist sites. So, after a couple of days, we "took the morning off" and took ourselves up to see Christ the Redeemer. As one would expect, the site is hugely touristy and absolutely rammed with people but I have to say was every bit as impressive as we had hoped and I was pretty much wowed by it.
The next day, we spent the day in Ipanema, the upscale area of town home to the famous Ipanema beach, before (much to my excitement) heading to the Sambadrome in the evening to see the actual carnival parade! Over two nights, the Sambadrome plays host to 12 samba schools, each of which parades and performs along the stretch of the Sambadrome for around 80 minutes, displaying incredibly elaborate costumes and floats, which follow their chosen theme for that year, and demonstrating their most impressive samba skills for spectators and judges, vying to be judged as the winning samba school.
Being the thrifty backpackers we are, we had opted for the cheap seats with the locals so we weren't quite sure what we would get to see, but we have to say, this was absolutely the best £20 we ever spent!! The first school kicked off around 9pm and the atmosphere in the Sambadrome immediately became electric, with everyone in the stands singing, cheering and dancing as the parade made its way towards us. When the first dancers reached the front of our stand we were absolutely blown away by the size and opulence of the floats and the immense detail of the costumes - this was certainly what carnival was all about! Although I was still feeling pretty ropey (to say the least) health-wise, I was determined that shingles would not ruin this for me and I even went crazy and had a whole 3 beers!! Unfortunately though, when it hit 2.30am and we were still only halfway through the samba schools, I realised I wasn't going to be able to make it to the end, so we resolved to stay for one more performance and then we would make a move. We were glad we did though as this fourth school was fantastic, with some of the most brightly coloured and intricate costumes yet and, just when we were saying "these guys will definitely win", right in front of us their biggest float crashed into the concrete bridge above the parade stretch that was housing the cameramen, 'beheading' the giant fibreglass Indian character that was the main feature of the float! We couldn't believe it, somebody clearly hadn't done their height calculations very well! During this parade we had also realised that we had inadvertently sat in amongst the fans of this samba school, as were completely surrounded by people wearing their tshirts and waving their flags. These people were absolutely distraught at the 'beheading' incident; the woman next to us actually started crying. It certainly made us realise how seriously some of the locals actually take carnival! Anyway, we finally called it a night at around 3.30am, having loved every minute of our Sambadrome experience. This was definitely something which lived up to the hype and will go down as a trip highlight for sure.
On our final full day in Rio, despite the abundance of blocos still going on in the city, we decided to tick off a few more sights, starting with the famous Selaron steps in Lapa.
This was followed by a trip to Copacabana beach and then up Sugar Loaf mountain, having both felt like our carnival experience had reached its climax the night before. Copacabana beach was predictably rammed, but it's setting underneath Sugar Loaf is certainly impressive and it provided some great entertainment in the form of numerous volleyball and other beach games being played by men in the tiny speedos expected in Rio! Much to Shaun's disappointment, there didn't seem to be any women playing in their thong bikinis though!
We headed up Sugar Loaf late afternoon, in time to catch the sunset and then get a view of the city at night, and this famous view certainly didn't disappoint. Watching the sun set behind Christ the Redeemer, perched up on the mountains behind the city, with the city and the beaches in the foreground was truly magical. Seen from here it would be difficult to argue that Rio is anything other than one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
Overall, despite my ailments, we still had a great time in Rio - in fact it's pretty impossible not to! Despite the horror stories at no point did we ever feel unsafe and the atmosphere in the city that came with it being carnival time was just fantastic.
Having said that, by the time we left, the aftermath of the street parties meant that the whole city was starting to look a little like a rubbish dump, with empty beers cans and burger wrappers lining the streets, and smell a bit like a toilet (I'm sure you can imagine why...) so despite the fact we loved Rio and would definitely come back, it felt like the right time to leave.
And so, it's on to Colombia for us - our last stop on our amazing journey. Can't believe it's that time already - I guess (shingles or no shingles!) we'll just have to make the most of every minute in Colombia. Watch this space!